National Weather Service uses IM trial to keep TV meteorologists current

Mark Wilson, hydrometeorological technician at the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Jackson, MS, uses instant messaging software to interact with area broadcast media.

Move over live power Doppler radar. Make way tornado chasing news choppers. Here comes the latest technological advancement in television meteorology — it’s far less flashy — but every bit as important.

The technology is Instant Messaging (IM), the same chat link millions use worldwide to keep in touch with friends. But this IM application has a serious focus: hazardous weather events.

NOAA/NWS meteorologists in several southern cities, including Jackson, MS, Birmingham, AL, Huntsville, AL, Memphis, TN, and Little Rock, AR, are communicating directly with local TV meteorologists during severe weather via IM chats to post warnings, share updates and answer questions.

“During hazards weather events, especially severe thunderstorms and tornados, a lot of broadcasters are doing wall-to-wall coverage providing information,” said Alan Gerard, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Jackson.

“Obviously, the National Weather Service has ways of disseminating information, but now we are trying to open a two-way channel of communication so broadcast meteorologists can ask the weather service questions during an event and get information to the public in the most rapid way possible.”

In the past, stations have relied on bulletins from the National Weather Service delivered via the Associated Press wire service and weather radio bulletins for official weather information. The addition of IM chats with NWS meteorologists supplements that information in a way that’s not possible with traditional avenues of delivery, said Gerard, who presented a paper on the topic at last month’s 33rd Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in New Orleans.

The IM trial began in 2002 and has been greeted warmly by broadcast meteorologists. An NWS assessment of the IM program used during a Veterans’ Day weekend tornado outbreak in Birmingham that year provides a sample of response from broadcast meteorologists.

“This is the greatest thing that ever happened between the private sector and the National Weather Service. The greatest ever,” the assessment quoted Birmingham’s ABC 33/40 chief meteorologist James Spann as saying.

“We get instant messaging immediately. We’ve got damage here. We’ve got confirmation there. We see that immediately and get it to the public within seconds. That’s the greatest idea I’ve seen since I’ve been doing weather,” it quoted WAIT-TV meteorologist Ben Smith as saying.

Although the program started in Birmingham, Gerard and his Jackson office are taking a leadership role in promoting the use of IM to communicate with broadcast meteorologists about hazardous weather conditions in real time.

Currently, weather service chat is only available from meteorologists in a handful of the 122 NWS local forecast throughout the country.

However, Tom Bradshaw, chief of the meteorological service’s branch in the southern region headquartered in Fort Worth, TX, encourages broadcast meteorologists to call their local forecast office to inquire about establishing a hazardous weather IM chat. Response may vary depending upon workload, Internet capabilities and security concerns, but it’s worth the effort, he said.

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